Are the winds deliberate? Over millennia they have the power to reconfigure a landscape by following the blueprints created by an array of invisible forces. Yet, it’s difficult to view the erosion of some once-great mountain, or the expansion of a coastal river way as intentional. A similar perspective is beneficial when exploring the work of Tortoise, whose seventh full-length album in 22 years, The Catastrophist has been evolving slowly since 2010.

Heralded as post-rock godfathers, it was the collective’s appreciation and aptitude for Chicago jazz that established the improvisational roots of this 11-track effort. Each cut borrows motifs from the suite first commissioned by the City of Chicago for a large collection of regional jazz musicians. However, Tortoise has never been a collective reserved for that genre’s often high-art minded clientele. Bred in the City of Big Shoulders, Tortoise pull from the many sounds of the midwestern music mecca, enveloping rooms within their inspired grooves. “Hot Coffee” best showcases Tortoise’s 2016 palette by arranging the city’s blues heritage (e.g. Chicago Blues Festival), noted jazz wanderings and minimal, experimental electronics (e.g. Neon Marshmallow Festival) into an easily digestible structure—a task that isn’t always so easy for artists, including those as well seasoned as John McEntire and company.

Taking a leisurely path through the recording sessions, McEntire reported the group would break from other projects and come together for incremental weeklong recording sessions to allow the tracks to arrive like early morning breezes. Just as the noises of previously resting wildlife begin to come alive with the first touches of dawn, an array of playful synths take shape during the middle-third of “Ox Duke”, eventually growing dark and imposing enough to challenge the upfront melodies for the track’s focal point.

Highly capable of cataclysmic instrumentation, Tortoise never pushes that chaos too early; this drama slyly approaches from numerous directions. Even when swirling dissonance takes over “Gesceap”, there is always a steady baseline to grasp. And if those moments of comfort and security are not afforded now, one can await the final silence of death—as symbolized during the waning moments of closing track “At Odds With Logic.”

Coming at the release largely as a group of individuals, fusing their various ideas together during the intermittent sessions, the overall record suffers from some minor miscues. Worthy of a few listens, the plodding retake of David Essex’s “Rock On” (featuring U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittmann) still exists as an unnecessary distraction. However, that cover’s instrumentals still convey the abilities of Tortoise; a skill set that is largely abandoned during the lo-fi indie output “Yonder Blue” (featuring Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley). It’s possible The Catastrophist would have arrived as a much tighter concept, in a shorter amount of time, had each of those tracks, along with the frustratingly short “Gopher Island,” simply been abandoned on the studio computers. Given the music industry, they would have eventually seen distribution on some future re-release anyhow.

Akin to their krautrock and jam-based contemporaries, Tortoise will prove the true worth of The Catastrophist when on the road in an improvisational setting. There, these tracks will continue to find new life when placed against a patchwork of proven fan-favorites like “TNT” and “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In”. With all attention on the live five-piece, it’s less likely for these new singles to get lost in today’s frenzied ambiance.

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